Tag Archives: Jeff Lemire

Jeff Lemire and others’ Black Hammer

Jeff Lemire (writer), Dean Ormston (pencils), Dave Stewart (colorist) and Todd Klein (letterer), Black Hammer Volume 1: Secret Origins (Dark Horse Books 2017)
———————, plus Dean Rubin (artist, colorist and letterer for 22 pages) Black Hammer Volume 2: The Event (Dark Horse Books 2017)

Having enjoyed Jeff Lemire’s Descender (my blog posts here, here and here), I was happy that my Christmas gift from my Comic Supplier included the first two books in a new series by him. It’s shaping up to be quite a story.

The first volume sets up a superheroes-in-retirement scenario. There are six of them, in order of appearance: Abraham Slam, strong man, who is more or less content with his life in exile as a farmer; Golden Gail, a 54 year old woman trapped in the body of her child superhero identity; Barbalien, a Martian master of disguise who struggles with unfulfilled desire; Colonel Weird, who spends a lot of time in the para-zone, where past, present and future are jumbled up together, and whose mind appears to be pretty jumbled as a result; Talky-Walky, a robot who does all the household chores and keeps building probes to try to find a way to escape; and Madame Dragonfly, a dark witch figure with dragonfly wings who keeps herself apart from the others and is generally disliked by them.

The nature of their exile isn’t clear. All we really know is that they are confined to a limited space including their farm and the small town nearby, and that they’ve been there for 10 years. We learn snippets of their past lives fighting crime and saving the occasional cat from a tree, beating supervillains, and joining forces to combat the greatest of all supervillains, the daringly named Anti-God. We also learn that there was a seventh superhero, a leader of sorts, called Black Hammer. The first volume – which collects numbers 1 to 6 of the comic series – ends with the arrival at the farm of a young reporter named Lucy, Black Hammer’s daughter.

In the second volume, things develop in a most satisfactory manner. We get more detail of all the back stories, and of the struggle against Anti-God (he had destroyed a whole other world before attacking their former home, Spiral City, and many other superheroes died at his hands). Our understanding of the nature of their exile grows less fuzzy as Lucy snoops around (and incidentally one of her discoveries echoes a climactic moment in Joyce Carol Oates’s Hazards of Time Travel, confirming my sense that what JCO treated as a major unexpected twist can be an unremarkable plot point in genre fiction). Romantic and other relationships with the townsfolk develop, none with outright happy results. One member of the band commits a shocking act of violence against another.

The final moment of this volume echoes the end of the first. Lucy once again dominates the moment, and it may well be that the story is about to head off in a completely new direction.

One last comment. The art by Dean Ormston, colouring by Dave Stewart, and lettering by the legendary Todd Klein (who must be legendary because I’ve heard of him) are wonderful, and then there is a 22 page section in a completely different, gaudy and ebullient style, by Dave Rubín. This section is ‘The Ballad of Talky-Walky’, and though I probably wouldn’t have persevered with a whole book in that style, here it brilliantly enacts the bizarre circumstances in which Colonel Weird and Talky-Walky became close friends and allies.

I’m patiently awaiting Volume 3.

Lemire and Nguyen’s Descender, Books 5 and 6

Jeff Lemire (words), Dustin Nguyen (images), Steve Wands (lettering and design) and Will Dennis (editor), Descender Volume Five: Rise of the Robots (Image Comics 2018)
––––  Descender Volume Six: The Machine War (Image Comics 2018)

For a Story So Far on this ripping revenge-of-the-robots space opera, you could do worse than clicking through to my blog post on Books 2, 3 and 4, by clicking here.

At the end of Volume 4, things were looking grim: Telsa, staunch but compromised ally of our robot hero child Tim-21, was left to drown by evil clone Tim-22; powerful destructive codes were about to fall into the wrong hands, and the galaxy as we know it was threatened with destruction; the Hardware were about to destroy Tim-21’s human ‘brother’ Andy, when Tim–21 recognised him on a screen and cried out, ‘That’s my brother!’

In Volume Five, the full complexity of the space wars is laid out.

Telsa is saved and evil Tim-22 comes to a ghastly end. Not to be too spoilerish, it turns out that ripping the head off a boy-like robot doesn’t disable it. You have to go a step or two further, and they need to be heavy steps.

Meanwhile, I don’t recommend that anyone read this book without reading the earlier instalments – and a quick reread of the earlier volumes would certainly have helped me. It’s a very complex world that Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen have created here: the main conflict is between humans and machine, but there are individuals in both camps who ally themselves with the other side, some as opportunists, others working for peace. It’s not at all clear that the humans are the goodies: in fact, the mysterious descenders of the title – the ones from whom all sentient machines are descended – make a good case for eliminating humans from the universe.

This volume ends with the appearance of yet another group of robot beings, who seem to offer some hope for peace (and who are keeping company with a benign human we met and assumed dead in the first volume, and whom I had completely forgotten).

Like all good space operas, this one ends with an all-out battle to save the universe. Dustin Nguyen’s images don’t always make it clear who is blasting whom, but it doesn’t seem to matter terribly, and his watercolours manage to convey both the intensity of the conflict and the vulnerability – I was going to say vulnerable humanity, but the character we care about most is Tim-21, a robot – of the beings involved, including the most authoritarian of humans and robots. There are huge moral dilemmas as characters have to choose whether to obey orders or follow their deepest values.

Just in case you assume that a cosmic war has to be won by the side that wants to save the universe from destruction, be warned, the final chapter begins with an irregular title card in the middle of a dark page: ‘This is the way the universe ended.’

On the other hand, the final page is a beautifully optimistic promise of a new series, Ascender. I’m looking forward to it

Year’s end lists 2017

It’s been quite a year. As it comes to an end the Emerging Artist (now with an MFA) and I have drawn up our Best Of lists.

MOVIES
I saw 64 movies, including a number watched on YouTube such as Godard’s Le mépris and Eisenstein’s October, the EA slightly fewer. It was a year of wonderful movies, as well as a handful of crushing disappointments, but here’s what we managed to single out.

The Emerging Artist’s top five, with her comments:

Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan 2016): I liked the slow, meditative build-up to the reveal and the ultimate resolution of the past that allowed the character to keep living.

The Salesman (Asghar Fahadi 2016): Tense, intense and brilliant. The visuals were wonderful, from the woman in shocking red against the grey of usual clothing to the tightness of action carried out in multiple stairwells.

Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt 2016): Many friends didn’t take to this film, and we saw it at a disadvantage on a very small screen. Three interlocking stories each gave small moments of pleasure, especially the last.

A Man of Integrity (Mohammad Rasoulof 2017): We saw this gripping Iranian film at the Sydney Film Festival. It has a universal theme of how to live a moral life when survival depends on going along with corruption. Deeply human, and also claustrophobically Kafkaesque.

Living/Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa 1952): What a delight this was. We saw it at the SFF. In three long sections the main character explores how to live well. Being a bureaucrat isn’t the answer.

… plus a bonus documentary for the EA

Nowhere to Hide (Zaradasht Ahmed 2016): A visceral look at northern Iraq through one man’s eyes, a paramedic trying to stay in his town as ISIS moves in.

My top five (chosen after the EA chose hers, avoiding duplicates):

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins 2016): Marvellous film, very slow. One of my companions said that it was like a behind the scenes look at The Wire. Three wonderful performances as the boy who becomes a man, perhaps especially Trevante Rhodes who shows the small frightened boy inside the streetwise drug lord.

Denial (Mick Jackson 2016): A very methodical film, written with great clarity by David Hare and featuring an excellent cast, this is a timely look at the importance of evidence-based thinking as opposed to adjusting the fact to accord with one’s political interests.

Silence (Martin Scorsese 2016): An old(ish) man’s deeply felt exploration of his Catholic heritage. Timely to be reminded of the intensities of Catholic belief when the institutional church’s failures around child sexual abuse are being exposed.

 I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck 2016): James Baldwin was brilliant, and this film does him justice. Favourite quote: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it has been faced.’

Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve 2017): Is there a word that means ‘bombastic’ but has entirely positive connotations?  That’s the word I want to use about this movie. And as someone asked on Twitter, ‘What happened to Deckard’s dog?’

… and a favourite moment:

In Hope Road (Tom Zubrycki 2017), at one point in his arduous fundraising walk, Zachariah Machiek (one of the ‘lost boys’ of South Sudan) strays onto private property and meets a couple of rough looking types who exude menace worthy of any Hollywood thriller.

Worst film of the year:

We both picked the same one, Sea Sorrow (Vanessa Redgrave 2017). Me: This started out as a fundraiser for unaccompanied child refugees in Europe, in which a number of big name actors did bits from Shakespeare and other turns. Vanessa Redgrave wanted to reach more people with her passionate message of compassion and worked it up into a film. Sadly it’s hardly a film at all. Emerging Artist: I’d have to agree. Though we did see a few really bad films, this one rated as it was so anticipated.

THEATRE

All but two of our theatre outings this year were to the Belvoir. It was a very good year – we only left at interval once. These are our picks:

Ghosts (Henrik Ibsen 1882): Eamon Flack’s director’s program note says this production isn’t set in 1881, but in a room that hasn’t changed since 1881. Like Tony Abbot’s mind. The sarcasm of that note is nowhere to be seen in the production, but it’s accurate anyhow. Pamela Rabe is brilliant in a very strong cast. The set refers to the detail of Ibsen while being quite spare. There’s a marvellous theatrical moment involving ash.

The Rover (Aphra Behn 1677): Aphra Behn was quite a playwright, and Eamon Flack and his physically diverse cast have a lot of fun and give a lot of joy in making it new. At the very end there were a couple of bars of Nino Rota’s film music, and we knew we were all on the same page.

Mark Colvin’s Kidney (Tommy Murphy 2017): Directed by David Berthold with Sarah Peirse and John Howard as the leads and set designed by Michael Hankin, this is a terrific play. I would have gone home happy at the end of the first act, but wasn’t disappointed by the rest. I went in thinking I knew the story and expecting to be mildly engaged, but I was bowled over.

BOOKS

Fiction:

The Emerging Artist’s top three:

Elizabeth Strout, Anything Is Possible: A lovely meditation on life and death and ageing. I read it in hospital after major surgery and it fitted my mood. I loved the interweaving of the characters and the story is excellent.

Michael Chabon, Moonglow: Telegraph Avenue is still my favourite Michael Chabon novel, and I loved this because it had many of the same qualities.

Nicole Krauss, Forest Dark: She’s a very quirky writer who takes the reader into weird places. This book possibly had too much Kafka in it but it was still a very enjoyable expedition.

My top three (linked to my blog posts about them):

Halldór Laxness, Independent People (©1934–1935, translation by James Anderson Thompson 1945, Vintage edition 1997)
Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta 2016)
Ali Alizadeh, The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc (Giramondo 2017)

Non-Fiction

The Emerging Artist’s top three:

Kim Mahood, Position Doubtful: My favourite book for this year, it has all my favourite things in it: art, maps, an attempt to come to terms with the relationship between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people. And it’s respectful of everybody.

Hannah Fink, Bronwyn Oliver: Strange Things: At present Bronwyn Oliver is my favourite Australian artist. This book gives insights into her work, her practice and the tragedy of her life. It looks at the dangers of the artist’s life, in particular the use of toxic materials, which contributed to her early death.

Susan Faludi, In the Dark Room: A wonderful interweaving of the history of Hungary, anti-semitism, male violence, trans politics and a daughter–father relationship. It’s got everything.

My top three (once again, apart from excellent AWW books listed yesterday; linked to my blog posts):

T G H Strehlow, Journey to Horseshoe Bend (©1969, Giramondo 2015)
Svetlana Alexievich, Chernobyl Prayer (1997, trans Anna Gunin & Arch Tait Penguin Classics 2016)
James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life ( 2016)

Poetry
(I choose reluctantly, placing it behind most of the AWW poetry books):

Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (Faber & Faber 1997). I recommended this enthusiastically at our book swap club. Someone picked it and then rejected it because I’d failed to mention that it was …. poetry.

Comics

Jeff Lemire, Dustin Nguyen and others, Descender Volumes 1–4 (Image Comics 2016, 2017), my blog posts here and here.
——-
Happy New Year, dear reader. May 2018 see #metoo bear marvellous fruit. May the world become less racist, more peaceful and more just. May all the detainees on Manus and Nauru find safety somewhere very soon.

Lemire and Nguyen’s Descender continues

Jeff Lemire, Dustin Nguyen and others, Descender Volume 2: Machine Moon (Image Comics 2016)
––––  Volume 3: Singularities (Image Comics 2016)
——-  Volume 4: Orbital Mechanics (Image Comics 2017)

descender2descender3Descender4

Descender is a space opera in glorious watercolour with a sweet, vulnerable and potentially lethal little boy at its heart.

Two brothers who were torn apart ten years earlier are searching for each other in the context of the build-up to intergalactic war. The catastrophe that separated them involved huge robotic machines called Harvesters, which wrought havoc on the planets governed by United Galactic Council and then disappeared. Since then, the agents of the UGC and others who are simply robot-phobic have been trying to destroy all artificial intelligence machines. Freelance bounty hunters, ‘scrappers’, roam space ferreting out even the most innocent robots, ‘robbies’, including those that are essential to human life on tiny planets. The repugnant inhabitants of the planet Gnish have made a virtual religion of pitching robbies against each other in gladiatorial combat. Meanwhile, the UGC are secretly building their own version of a Harvester, in the hope of securing the software that will make it an invincible weapon; and The Hardwire, an underground robot resistance, is building a huge army and hoping to call on the Harvesters (whom they worship as gods) as allies in a great war to eliminate humans.

All of that is background revealed in the first couple of books as it impinges on the lives of a handful of vividly realised characters.

There are the brothers, Andy and Tim-21, who is not a human brother but a robot created to be Andy’s companion. We learn through a series of flashbacks that they were devoted to each other as small boys, that Andy’s mother treated Tim-21 with kindness and respect for his sentient nature, that Tim-21 developed a capacity for compassion, affection and loyalty. He was in sleep mode when the Harvesters struck and stayed asleep until accidentally woken ten year later. Meanwhile, Andy was filled with vengeful rage and became a scrapper.

The sweet-natured, vulnerable Tim–21 contains within himself the coding that will reveal the secrets of the Harvesters – so he is a sought-after prize by all the big players. He does have allies: Quon, the man who ‘created’ him, Telsa (not Tesla) an officer of the UGC sent by her father to retrieve Tim–21 (she is unaware that her father wants to weaponise his coding); and his brother Andy.

The little band is captured, released, split up, infiltrated. There’s plenty of explosions and bang-crash-pow. But the narrative is kept alive by the complex web of ambivalent relationships and the underlying Blade-Runner-ish question of what it means to be human: Tim–21 has a human ‘brother’ in Andy, and a robot ‘brother’ in Tim–22, both of whom claim his affection and also plan to destroy him; he grieves for his deceased human mother, sees Quon as a kind of father, and is claimed as a son by the leader of the Hardwire; Andy’s ex-wife Effie identifies as part robot since being patched up after an accident, and insists that her name is Queen Between; a barely-intelligent robot named Driller turns out to have deep reserves of remorse for a murderous act of revenge.

The back stories of the characters unfold, full of satisfying twists, as the adventure lurches forward. At the end of Volume 4, things are looking grim: one character is about to drown, the weaponising secrets are about to fall into the wrong hands, one of the little bands of adventurers is about to be wiped out by The Hardware, and the galaxy as we know it may well be about to be destroyed. Then Tim–21 recognises Andy on a screen and cries out, ‘That’s my brother!’ The end of Book Four.

It’s terrific story-telling, with moments of sly satire, as when the Gnishians are crowning a new king: instead of a crown they place on his head an orange hairpiece that is eerily familiar to anyone who follows US presidential politics.

I wasn’t drawn to Dustin Nguyen’s watercolour art in the first volume but either it’s settled down or I’ve settled in, but now I’m loving it. My conversion was completed by a series of spreads early in Volume 4 where three narrative strands play out wordlessly – across the top of each spread, the two Tims are alone on a lunar landscape; across the middle Andy and Effie/Queen Between revive their former mutual passion; in the bottom panels Quon and Telsa fight off a Hardwire guard and search for Tim–21. Each level has its distinctive style, and the sex and the violence are both handled with conviction but without prurience. At a couple of moments it may be hard to tell exactly what’s happening (my complaint about Volume 1), but there is good reason for that: sometimes the reader needs not to know everything.

According to Amazon, volume 5, The Rise of the Robots, will be published in January 2018, and it’s ‘what it has all been building to … as the origins of The Harvesters are finally revealed and the galaxy is thrown into all out war’. But Amazon says nothing of what happens to Tim and Andy. I’ll just have to wait.

Velvet and Descender begin

Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting and others, Velvet Volume 1: Before the Living End (Image Comics 2014)
Jeff Lemire, Dustin Nguyen and others, Descender Volume 1: Tin Stars (Image Comics 2015)

These two books, on loan from a son, have been singing their siren song from by TBR pile for months. I lashed myself to the mast of serious reading for a long time, but I’ve finally succumbed – and a good thing too.

velvet1 Velvet is a spy story set in the 1970s, with flashbacks to the 50s. It’s a Bond movie from before those movies started reducing the violence to get PG ratings, with a glamorous woman protagonist who’s in her 40s but would pass for 25. Lots of gore, lots of exposed flesh (but nothing you wouldn’t see at the beach), cool gadgets (including a fabulous ‘stealth suit’) and – as you’d expect from Ed Brubaker, writer of Fatale and The Fade Out – intrigue aplenty.

Before the Living End begins with the violent death of a field agent accompanied by a ‘voice over’ reminiscing about the boss’s glamorous assistant. It ends with that assistant, former field agent Velvet Templeton, on the run, determined to clear herself of suspicion by finding the real killer–mole, and at the same time find out the truth about the terrible events that led to her removal from the field 17 years earlier.

Steve Epting’s artwork is slick and moody, capturing the Bond version of 70s cool perfectly. Colors [sic] by Elizabeth Breitweiser and letters by Chris Eliopoulos are impeccable.

descender1From international espionage to intergalactic AI in a single bound.

Descender takes place in the distant future, on the planets of the United Galactic Council. After a prologue in which enormous humanoid robots attack the eight worlds of the UGC, the main story picks up ten years later with a little boy waking from a long sleep on a small mining colony to find everybody else dead. The boy, it turns out, is a sentient robot named Tim–21 who was a companion to a human child.

A connection between Tim–21 and the gigantic destroyer robots is gradually revealed, and soon he and a band of allies – the scientist who created him, an irritating robot dog, a UGC officer named Telsa (not Tesla), a loyal muscleman, and an ore driller with enough artificial intelligence to be a dumb sidekick – are fleeing and fighting for their lives as any number of criminal and state bodies are out to get him, not always for reasons the reader yet understands. We do know for sure it’s not a case of ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’. In the background there is a Dantesque purgatory teeming with the souls of decommissioned robots who look to Tim-21 as their possible saviour.

It’s complex, ripping-yarn fun.

Dustin Nguyen’s watercolour art is beautiful, but not ideal as a story-telling medium: too often it’s too hard to tell what is happening. And Steve Wands’ lettering is sometimes too concerned with the design look, and not enough with legibility. But these are quibbles set alongside the wonderfully poignant images of the vulnerable child at the heart of the story.

As soon as I’d read these books I texted my son–supplier, who has two more volumes of each series. I guess I’ll be writing about them soon.